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The Adventures of Brother Arcadius and Pangur Ban
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A born scholar with a passion for learning and poetry, earnest young Dubliner Brother Arcadius doesn't quite fit in with his brutal and bloodthirsty 9th-century era. But he's fortified by his intrepid Irish spirit, and by an unexpected ally-a homeless cat that he's rescued and named Pangur Ban. Pangur is not your ordinary cat. Along with being a mouser like no other, he has a knack for turning up in moments of crisis to lend a helping paw, or clarify situations with a timely yowl. It's a good thing, too. For when Arcadius and Pangur arrive at the faraway Alpine monastery of Spiritus Sanctus, where Arcadius is to be the new assistant librarian, it soon becomes clear that this place will be no restful haven. Spiritus Sanctus may be off the beaten track, but people manage to find it all the same-people in trouble, and people who cause plenty of it. Coming along one after another, they put Arcadius and Pangur to the test.And Spiritus Sanctus offers plenty of challenges in its own right. There's dark-eyed, enigmatic, and excruciatingly well-connected Father Julian, the head of the monastery (he prefers not to be called "abbot"). What is it that's on his mind? And enormously super-sized, hulking Brother Atalf, monk of all work-when his brows are knotted up like that, does it indicate thought, or dislike of assistant librarians, or what? And what about the torments of those compulsory, unwinnable weekly chess games? And when a key ingredient of the monastery's famous herbed game stew goes missing, where might it be? And in those occasional discussions of the shape of the earth, is anybody right?Funny and touching, these tales of an endearing 9th-century nerd and his very exceptional cat are written for readers from 12 to 112 and beyond. They follow Brother Arcadius and Pangur Ban through their first four years of quirky adventure, misadventure, and non-adventure at Spiritus Sanctus, showing along the way that even in a dark and difficult age, cats and assistant librarians can be forces to reckon with. In the actual, historical 9th century, when Vikings were on the rampage and bludgeons and battle-axes abounded, a monk whose name has not come down to us picked up his pen and wrote a poem. He wrote it in Irish, on parchment pages that were otherwise given over to writings in Latin and Greek. And although he was writing in Irish, he wasn't in Ireland or anywhere near it. Rather, he seems to have been situated in a monastery in the foothills of the Alps. His poem was not a battle-hymn or a diatribe against wicked enemies, or a prayer. It was simply about himself and his cat, a cat whose name he gives as "Pangur Ban." Whoever this person was, he says in his poem that he pursues learning as zealously as Pangur pursues mice. Cat and scholar, he says, are identical in their devotion to their arts. There's a smile in the words that can be felt even today.Having survived eleven turbulent centuries in monastic seclusion, the poem became known to the wider world in the early 1900s, and since then has charmed its way into many hearts and Internet discussions, and inspired a good many works of art as well, including several books. Its best-known English translation is perhaps that of the poet and scholar Robin Flower (1881-1946). It appears in Mr Flower's Poems & Translations, published by Lilliput Press in Dublin. The Adventures of Brother Arcadius and Pangur Ban is a heartfelt response to that unknown poet's words of so long ago. The shouts and cries of 9th-century battlefields have long been silent, but the poem lives on, a creative force that can still touch lives. Brother Arcadius would be glad that this is so.
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"Margaret Nagel delivers a likeable, funny and, above all, believable protagonist in this delightful story brimming with captivating characters. The year is 898 AD. Sixteen-year-old Brother Arcadius, proficient in Latin and Irish and passing fair in Greek and Hebrew, has outgrown the small abbey in Dublin where his widowed mother placed him, feeling that he was too smart and frail to work in the family brick-making business. He sets off on the arduous and dangerous journey by boat and overland to become assistant librarian at Spiritus Sanctus, a much larger monastery housing 150 brothers and over 500 books, near the northern border of Italy. Between bouts of seasickness, the humble monk uses some of his limited "pieces of money" to ransom a kitten that a sailor is about to kill. Arcadius names the sooty cat Pangur Ban, Irish for "white," the color under the soot, and sets the scene for 11 charming tales recounting how a naive young apprentice librarian and an intuitive and "magical" feline influence the lives of the clergy, a noble family, an accused witch, murderers and thieves, and various other travelers. Nagel's prose is crisp and spare, and her word choice facilitates the claim that the book "is written for readers from 12 to 112." While she explains in an addendum titled "An Apology to Actuality" that the story mixes historical fact and fiction, the author paints a lively picture of the times through the actions of myriad characters and situations. (The addendum also notes that Pangur Ban originates from a poem a ninth-century monk wrote about his cat.) Nagel, who drew the book's appealing illustrations, offers enough information so that each story can be read separately, but the clever author has arranged them in chronological order, so that they work even better as an episodic novel. Thankfully, Brother Arcadius is only 20 at the end of the book's final tale. Even though life spans were short in the 10th century that should leave time for many more adventures in what is sure to be a much-anticipated sequel." -- BlueInk starred review (www.blueinkreview.com)

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